While looking at First Person Singular, by acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami, I asked myself three questions in order to understand the collection of stories: what is it about?, what is the most important thing? and lastly, and then what happened? In this post I will answer the third question, which relates to the structure of the stories. The answer to the question is what you are left with once you put the book down – the final thought about it, so to speak. And it is definitely not the usual thing.
Have I missed the plot (pardon the pun)?
Regardless of my own reservations, Murakami’s narrative strategy for these stories (analyzed below) is justified and very well executed, especially if one considers where the book ultimately leads the reader to. Make no mistake, his writing style, as mixed as it is for the different characters’ voices, is cohesive, consistent and meticulously expressed. And overall, it was a pleasant, intellectually pleasing reading experience – particularly for someone who likes music.
But, have I missed something in the cultural references, settings, characterization and aesthetics in the stories, because I am not Japanese and have not read many Japanese authors? Probably. This kind of down-beat, subtle tone, the muted-ness of the stories, reminds me of a classical Japanese ink wash painting, where less is more and the spirit of the subject is depicted, rather than its outward appearance.
I am judging a work which was written in Japanese with Japanese aesthetics by a quintessentially Japanese author, against European English Literature standards. I have no idea how much subtlety, if any, was lost in the translation. Just analyzing the extremely complicated Japanese writing system would have been difficult enough for the translator. Were I a Japanese literature reviewer, I would probably have a very different view of the book. I would have asked different questions. However, I can only judge the book by my own expectations.
The end really matters
In European (or Western) literature, the climax and conclusion of any story are critical. As Neil Gaiman explains in his MasterClass course on The Art of Storytelling, a short story needs to be structured as if it were the last chapter of a full-length novel. All stories, long or short, need a set-up and build-up of the plot (exposition), conflict, a climax or catastrophe, and then a final resolution or ending (dénouement or exposition). The ending needs to be satisfying, otherwise readers are left wanting more: resolution, continuation, or alternatives.
There are many versions of narrative or story arcs, but the elements are there to introduce change and move the story along. Interestingly, the elements are aligned with the human emotional response to change, and stage for stage, this is also what the reader experiences through the characters – denial, frustration, sadness, bargaining, crisis and acceptance. This being the case, it is a human thing to expect a satisfactory resolution to a story. As in life, you want to tie up the loose ends and close the book.
If you don’t like it, make up your own
Readers who are dissatisfied with the ending of a story often make up their own versions through actually making the fictional art that is mentioned in the story, or writing fan fiction based on the story, or making illustrations and videos of the story. The fact that this has happened with First Person Singular, in the story Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova in particular, shows that Murakami’s writing is important and complex enough that it would prompt fans to “own” it. It is also a sign that some readers have not been satisfied with what happened next in the story. They have been led up the garden path by the author, and they want more. At least, they want a satisfactory ending, if they cannot get a complete story arc.
Each story in First Person Singular has, as it should, an opening set-up, plot build-up, climax and explanation, but they all end fairly bluntly and briefly: someone dies or disappears; the narrator feels uncertain, confused, or disconnected; but people grow up; they forget what happened; life trundles on.
This type of “trundling on” is typical the slice-of-life style of descriptions that Murakami creates. Slice-of-life narratives depict ordinary, random events in a character’s unexciting life, which in these stories include going shopping for food, having a beer, choosing a tie, using public transport, etc. These descriptions are contrasted with the unpleasant realizations or disconcerting memories of the narrator. But ultimately, regardless of the surreal moments and brief incidences of excitement, life continues on its mundane way, at least for the narrator.
Just moseying along
An example for this type of ending in First Person Singular is the story called With the Beatles, in which the narrator finds out that the girl he dated long ago killed herself after they broke up. But all he thinks about is a girl carrying a Beatles album who he saw just once, long before.
“Sometimes I wonder – is she still hurrying down that dimly lit high school hallway in 1964, the hem of her skirt fluttering as she goes? Sixteen even now, holding that wonderful album with the cover of the half-lit photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, clutching it tightly as though her life depended on it.”
First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami, p. 124, With the Beatles (Photo by Mike on Pexels.com)
A more exciting exit
The last story in the book, First Person Singular has a more dramatic ending. The disclosure that the narrator has (possibly) done something awful, to someone, at a beach somewhere, is disconcerting, as is his transition from the inside of the bar to the outside, like stepping through a portal into another, less pleasant world. Unfortunately, that only raises more questions and leaves the ending open.
“When I got to the top of the stairs and out of the building, it was no longer spring, and the moon had disappeared from the sky. It was no longer the street I knew. I’d never before seen the trees lining the street. Thick, slimy snakes wound themselves tightly around the trunks, like wriggling living ornaments. Their scales rustled drily as they rubbed against the bark. The sidewalk was ankle deep in whitish ash, and there were faceless men and women walking along, exhaling a yellowish, sulfurous breath from deep within their throats. The air was bitterly cold, almost freezing.”
First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami, p. 245, First Person Singular
(Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com)
So – what does happen next?
In my opinion, the reader cannot conclusively answer the question: And then what happened? in most of the stories in First Person Singular.
Murakami would not have used this narrative strategy unwittingly, because the consequence is that the reader realizes that the answer to the question of what happens next, lies beyond the book, in what the stories in the book make the reader do after they have finished reading them.
In my case, what happened then was that I put the book down, and did a search on the Internet on Charlie Parker, and Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, and the other music mentioned in the book. I spent an afternoon enjoying music that I remembered from long ago, and music that I had not heard before, like Miłosz Konarski’s “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova (What If)” album, which I mentioned in the previous post. I rediscovered Charlie Parker, and I listened to his performances with new ears, and then went and bought an actual vinyl album of Charlie Parker’s music.
I may forget what I thought about First Personal Singular and not read it again. But I will always go back to the music I (re)discovered through the stories, and after I had finished reading them, courtesy of Haruki Murakami. Which makes me wonder what other readers did, after they had finished reading it.